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Why Don't Trees Grow To the Sky?

Many people think that certain investments, at certainly times, will grow forever. Learn how to avoid falling into this trap in this week's blog.

The tallest coastal redwood tree is as high as a thirty-seven story building. It stands in a secret location somewhere in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and is estimated (according to Wikipedia) to be 700 to 800 years old.

Will this tree grow to the sky? After all, if past performance continues and guarantees future results, the tree will grow another fifty feet or so each century. In about one hundred centuries, the tree should be one mile high, mesmerizing our distant descendants.

Back to reality. We all know that trees don't grow forever. (There's something called the theory of hydraulic limitation, which says that at some point, it's impossible for the tree to have enough internal pressure to pull water from the roots to the top of the tree, limiting its growth.)

But many people think that certain investments, at certain times, will grow forever. There's an excellent book by Charles MacKay that discusses financial delusions and follies over the last few centuries.

A famous example is "Tulip Mania" in the Netherlands in the 1630s. Tulips became the hot luxury item, so everyone "had" to have one, and because of limited supply (they originally came from Turkey), their value soared. Savvy investors saw the demand and subsequent price spikes, and ordered as many as could be obtained. (According to Wikipedia, tulips take seven to twelve years to mature, so they couldn't be grown to meet demand.)  Other people saw the savvy investors making money, so they piled in as well. They "knew" it was a sure thing, and that tulip prices was continuously rise.

At one point (according to MacKay's book), a tulip bulb cost ten years' worth of skilled craftsmen's wages. One tulip was traded for twelve acres of land. Some bulbs were traded ten times a day by speculators.

In February 1637, the tulip market collapsed. Buyers vanished, and within a few days, prices dropped by 99%. Tulip selling, the Netherlands' fourth largest export, disappeared. (To get an idea how bad this was: America's fourth largest export is automobiles. Imagine our economy without those jobs.)

It's easy to look back four hundred years and scoff about Tulip Mania. We would never be so deluded, right?

Unfortunately, one of the themes in MacKay's book is that human nature doesn't change that much over time. Consider the last thirty years: we've seen wild price swings in high-yield ("junk") bonds in the mid- and late-1980s; emerging markets bonds in the early- and mid-1990s (culminating in the "Tequila Crisis" and the "Russian Flu"); technology stocks ("dot-coms") in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and real estate in the mid- and late 2000s.

I've been helping clients since 1990, and I remember investors in all these cases (except for junk bonds, I was still in college) touting these "can't miss" assets. For example, I taught many classes in the Bay Area in the late 1990s, and in almost every class, I'd hear the following scenario. A student, feeling particularly clever, would announce that he (it was usually a he) had maxed out his credit card, withdrawn as much cash as possible, and day-traded tech stocks. To him, the 20% interest charges paled compared to his return in the stock market. I never quite understood why these particular students took my classes, if they were making such a killing on their own. Nevertheless, we all know how these stories ended.

My point in all this is to be careful. Consider the hot investments over the past couple of years: gold, silver, Apple stock, high-yield bonds (again! everything is cyclical), emerging markets bonds, U.S. government bonds, anything paying a high rate of interest, anything leveraged, etc. I have no idea how these investments will perform in the future. But the historical pattern tells me to watch out for overly-popular assets. It's a cliche, but it's true: past performance does not guarantee future results, and trees do not grow to the sky.

 

Lou Dagen is a Certified Financial Planner in the San Francisco Bay Area. For twenty-three years, he has helped clients around the world retire in comfort, educate their children, and increase their net worth. If you have comments or questions about this blog, please post in the "Comments" section below, or call Lou directly at 925-997-8507.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Connie Acton February 23, 2013 at 07:10 PM
no comment
Californicated1 February 23, 2013 at 07:30 PM
The reason why trees don't grow to the sky is the same reason why humans don't grow to be 12 feet tall--there is no need to. Nature has this interesting way of cultivating life so that it does only what it needs to survive, and if it grows beyond those requirements, the organism may find itself outstripping the resources it has access to and will start dying off, doesn't matter if its a tree or an elephant. Malthus can be a wonderful teacher in the right hands and in the wrong hands, Malthusian Law can also turn a situation into chaos out there. Mr. Dagen, it also sounds like you and I went to college at the same time that "junk bonds" were big (I was in Graduate School until 1991). Do you remember the trend immediately after it--Municipal Bonds and Utilities Stocks and that there was a brief "bubble" in them that was eventually overshadowed by the "dot-com" boom in the late-1990s and eventually that "bubble" in utilities stocks crashed after the "dot-com" bubble collapsed. Back in 1991 and -92, I remember my paternal grandmother, who just became a widow when my grandfather died at the end of 1990, tell me about all these utilities stocks she was purchasing and these were the most sound stocks she owned in her portfolio at that time. By the time she passed away in 2007, those very same stocks were worth less than when she bought them in 1992. All I learned from her with that situation was that there was no such thing as a "sure thing" out there.
Ross Stapleton-Gray February 23, 2013 at 08:55 PM
The poet in me would say that trees do grow to the sky, even as the sky reaches down to meet us, too. The scientist in me would say that trees rely on mechanics for water elevation from the roots that pretty much limits them to the 360' or so feet we see in the tallest redwoods. If I were Mitt Romney I might comment that they grow as tall as they do to make me comfortable with their height, whatever it was he meant by that.
Chris J Kapsalis February 23, 2013 at 09:32 PM
There is an S curve at work that is universal in all things natrual and manmade that something will reach it's limit at some point and the only place to go is down. Like the shark. Or nail hammer. Crocodile or pocket knife. Once you reach a perfect design it levels off and completes the s curve. No need to change. It's perfect.
Chris Nicholson February 23, 2013 at 10:35 PM
Businesses and asset classes are not trees. Although it is a mathematical truism that a subset cannot grow faster than its parent set forever, forever is a long time and, from a small base, growth can be sustained for a long long time. Note also that the overall "set" or market is not static. In general, per-capita productivity as well as overall population are ever-increasing (so the minimum height to reach the "sky" is always increasing). As a specific example, although online consumption of media cannot grow faster than the market forever, for a start of zero percent in around 1990, I think it is reasonable to assume several decades of faster-than-market growth. Also, the world is a big (and growing) untapped market. I'll bet that Coca Cola beverages (measured by end-consumer pricing) have grown essentially continuously for over a hundred years. When will this growth stop?
Napoleon Solo February 24, 2013 at 07:58 PM
Lou's topic dovetails well into another discussion here on the patch about "Is Contra Costa County Paying Enought Into It's Pension System?" The county has been warned that their assumptions of 7.7% returns in the market are too optimistic and should be reduced to 5.5%. A possible reason they have such optimistic assumptions is that it hides that taxes may need to go up to pay for those pensions. However, not only is CYA politics involved, it really is difficult to make returns assumptions into the future. I recall that in the late 1990's financial analyts for the CFA exam (its a certificate popular with mutual fund managers) were supposed to assume 12% rates of return in the stock markets into the future. If they did not put down that figure, they would be marked wrong on their test. Of course, shortly after, the market crashed. Also, about that time a guy named Jeremy Seigel published a good book that people overestimate potential returns, especially when considering after tax and after inflation adjusted returns. Fast forward to now. The weekend I got my new Business Week magazine in the mail today. On the cover it says "The Great American Housing Rebound, Flips, No-look bids. 300 percent returns." And on another blog here, we already have the realtors here warning that you'd better get in now before its too late. Capitalism definitely is entertaining.
c5 February 25, 2013 at 03:02 PM
Two words come to mind here... Diversification and Discipline
Lou Dagen, CFP, ChFC February 26, 2013 at 03:36 AM
"What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind." --- George Berkeley
joel February 26, 2013 at 05:47 PM
Intersting question , why do tree grow so tall , I will compare them to a Banker's ego , However the theory of hydraulic you are using is not completly accurate as it has been proven they are actually thriving thanks to the snow that cap them , the fog that linger and soak them , their growth are just like investment they are limited by the peoples robbing them , in investment all the roaches which earn an obscene leaving from Customer accounts , trade this sell that buy this and every time they get their cut , should the cut come from the company they are buying they will be a few more hnnest peoples on wall street and the banks , Sorry but history has proven they are all a bunch of thieves over and over .
One more time with feeling February 27, 2013 at 12:32 AM
Because the City of Walnut Creek deems them sick and cuts them down.

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